OPINION: The cultural impact of digitizing information

I used to own a copy of National Geographic magazine from 1911. It was packed with black-and-white photographs of “natives” and village ethnic minorities in various countries posing awkwardly in ceremonial costumes. The issue was part of a larger collection that included most copies of National Geographic published in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, and several dozen copies from the 1920s through the 1950s. It took up two rows on my bookshelf.


I’ve moved several times since acquiring all of those magazines, which fit neatly into nine very heavy boxes. Toting them from place to place added to the pain and expense of moving.


Imagine my surprise this week when I learned that National Geographic is selling digital versions of every copy of National Geographic published since 1888 on DVD for $70. No, there are no typos here. They’ll sell you 120 years of brilliant photography, insight and commentary about our world for essentially the price of taking your family to see “Avatar.” For $200, they’ll even send you the lot on a 160GB hard drive.


Meanwhile, the Library of Congress was good enough to scan some 60,000 historically valuable books , many of which were too fragile even to let historians touch them. These documents were next to impossible to access, even by historians. Now, anyone in the world with an Internet connection can access all of them — if, that is, they’re not too busy poring over the more than 10 million books Google has scanned and put online for free.


Speaking of free, that appears to be the magic price point for big eBook sales. Amazon announced this week that the majority of its record-breaking Kindle eBook sales over the holiday were, in fact, books the company was “selling” at the price of zero. Many of these were public domain books with expired copyrights. But surprisingly, many were not.


Where is all this going?


If you follow the trend lines for book and magazine availability, pricing and the costs of distribution and digital storage, we’ll soon find ourselves living in a world where literally millions of titles are available to just about everyone, just about all the time. How will that change human culture? Here are the implications:


A magazine subscription will include all back-issues. What happens when you subscribe to the electronic version of Esquire, and they toss in every issue of Esquire ever published? You can now include the magazine in your global searches for information. A magazine subscription suddenly becomes more valuable to readers. Business model anyone?


Intellectuals lose their monopoly access to some content. I started out in the newspaper business, and very quickly began writing opinion columns. We small-town newspaper editorialists used newspaper clippings in a self-constructed “morgue file” as our primary resource. The big-time, national and syndicated columnists had pricey subscriptions to the Lexis/Nexis database, which is billed as the “world’s largest collection of public records, unpublished opinions, forms, legal, news, and business information.” Well before journalists used the Internet for anything, deep-pocket columnists could conduct what were essentially Google-style searches to find all kinds of information, while we hacks in the hinterlands had to thumb through paper folders jammed with newspaper articles.


A similar thing is happening with historians. There are thousands of amateur historians with insight, talent and knowledge, but without access to documents and other materials. Thanks to the Internet, Google and now initiatives like the Library of Congress’ historic book scanning project, the playing field has been leveled dramatically.


This same thing is also taking place with university courses. Just take a gander at this monstrous list of free online university lectures. The Internet has given us all a direct window into Ivy League classrooms.


More people will be reading classics. People are bargain-hunting cheapskates. Nearly every “classic” published before, say, World War II is available to you right now, instantly and free. As Amazon’s holiday sales demonstrate, people gravitate to free books. And classics tend to be far better and more valuable to readers than your everyday random free book. The rise in eBook reading, combined with the freeness of classic works, will restore the reading of classics.


You can read Common Sense by TV commentator Glenn Beck for $12, or you can read Common Sense written by Thomas Paine for free. One book is worthless, and the other is a national treasure. But the pricing doesn’t reflect that.


If more people read classics written by geniuses instead of trash written by self-aggrandizing TV talking heads, how would that change the public discourse?


School content will be free. They’re always telling us that the solution to our public education system is that we’re not throwing enough money at schools. Meanwhile, textbooks tend to be politicized, written-by-committee garbage that serve mainly to turn kids off of reading and cost a small fortune.


On one hand, you have pricey, generic and unreadable textbooks. On the other, you have all of the knowledge known to man — much of it incredibly engaging and exciting to readers — for no cost. Hmmmm. Which to choose?


Of course, I’m over-simplifying the issue. But I think students, teachers and school budgets would all benefit from letting go of their obsessions with textbooks and forming obsessions with the new world of public domain works and Wiki-generated educational materials.


The poorest countries will share in the richness of human culture. Philanthropists have been trying to get computers in the hands of impoverished children for years. One of the challenges has been to provide them with the Internet access that would open the world of knowledge to them.


But while they’re off working on that, why not pack those computers will low-cost content? The One Laptop Per Child project is working on a $75 touch tablet to be handed out to slum-dwelling kids around the world. What if every age-appropriate book on Earth was pre-loaded on the hard drive or flash drive? What if every child in Afghanistan were handed a tablet pre-loaded with every back issue of National Geographic magazine? How would that open their eyes to the world?


There’s little doubt that the growing availability of books and periodical content — at low or no cost — will change the spread of knowledge. The combination of inexpensive storage, digital formats, mass-scanning projects and improved search capabilities will transform our world in ways we can’t imagine.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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